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Islam and Paganism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Sep 28, 2007

A few weeks ago I removed from our library a misplaced document which purported to prove that Islam was really a polytheistic faith based on an ancient pagan god of the half-moon. The article ignored Mohammed’s obvious purpose, inspired by Judaism and Christianity, of using the cult associated with a particular god to wipe away the old local pantheon, insisting that there is only one God in heaven and earth.

The Pagan Difference

In some ways, the effort was not unlike that of St. Paul in addressing the Greeks. Paul seized upon the altar to an unknown god and used it as a springboard for monotheism. The difference is that Paul based his approach on the pure Revelation of the one God while Mohammed used a highly selective mixture of Judaism, Christianity and his own imagination. In other words, it is no good denying Islam’s devotion to the One, which Mohammed derived indirectly from Revelation; clearly, he was a passionately committed monotheist. But it is critical to realize that Islam is not based on any sort of special revelation given by the One to his people, except insofar as it borrows imperfectly from Judaism and Christianity.

It is possible to identify the remarkable differences which separate Islam from the Judeo-Christian tradition without resorting to the specious claim that Muslims do not seek to worship the one and only God of all. In the 1920’s, a remarkable Jewish theologian named Franz Rosenzweig developed a deeper theory of paganism which sheds light on this divide. Rosenzweig argued persuasively that the key component of paganism is not polytheism but the inescapable fact that paganism never originates with God revealing Himself to His people out of love. This idea has a number of fascinating repercussions, both for our conception of God and for our relationship with Him.

Who God Is

We begin with the certainty that pagans cannot know God personally, initially because God had not revealed Himself to them and later because they have ignored or rejected His self-revelation. For this reason, all pagan religions tend to be preoccupied with the essential arbitrariness of God’s power. In contrast, where God has revealed Himself, he shows Himself to be a God who loves and desires relationships of love. But love is never arbitrary. It always seeks the good of the beloved. As such, it is also at the deepest level both understandable and predictable. Though philosophers would rightly explain this as a perfection rather than a limitation, we may bow to convenience here and describe God as self-limiting. He acts only in love.

For the Muslim, this is not the case. Allah is perceived as having an absolutely arbitrary will, completely unfathomable and impenetrable to the human mind, a will which in all cases and in every way directly determines and even continually creates everything that is, everything that happens to us, and everything we “decide” to do. Because Allah’s will is perceived as ultimately unfathomable and arbitrary, Islam shares a certain despotic fatalism with all other and more obvious paganisms. This, at least, is what Rosenzweig argued in his 1921 book The Star of Redemption (which I encountered for the first time in the current issue of First Things), an argument which, whether or not we choose to use the loaded term pagan in this context, is not only persuasive but helpful in understanding how Islamic monotheism is so different from that of Judaism or Christianity.

Who We Are

Revelation requires two parties, God and the people to whom He opens Himself. In a relationship of love, not only do we understand more fully Who God is, but we understand more fully who we are. For those who love must necessarily be both persons and free agents. Yes, they are mysteriously sustained in existence by God, but out of love, in a way that liberates from fatalism. We are real separate beings with our own freedom and our own purposes, not beings who are continually recreated as pawns in some theistic game of dice. It is precisely this stability and independence, in persons created in the image and likeness of God, which makes it possible for us to enter into relationships with each other and with God Himself.

Again, for the Muslim, the idea of a personal relationship with Allah which can be nurtured to grow in a consistent way is extremely foreign. Whatever will be will be, as Allah wills it. Rosenzweig argues that this has enormous implications not only for personal spirituality (which, theoretically, should be reduced to desperate obedience) but for society and culture. He suggests that the pagan’s personality cannot be formed by personal growth with God and is therefore left to be merely an extension of race and state, locked in a struggle for racial or national survival, a struggle which in the end must always be doomed. Hence while the distinctive mark of Christian or Jewish culture is its concern for the weak and vulnerable, the distinctive mark of pagan culture is war, the extension of submission. Hence too the common emphasis on personal suicide in the service of the larger cause. What we saw in Japanese warfare in World War II, we now see in Islam, in spades.

The Role of Reason

Given the severe constraints Islam places on God and anthropology—that is, the arbitrariness and the fatalism—the attempt to introduce consistent rational discourse or philosophy into an Islamic culture faces severe obstacles. The operation of reason depends precisely on certain consistencies in reality which Islam tends to deny. And yet there have been great flashes of rational discourse and philosophy during certain periods of Islamic history. We must never forget that Judaism and Christianity were profound influences on Mohammed, and that no culture or people is ever perfectly explained by an analytical theory, even a theory as suggestive and illuminating as Rosenzweig’s.

For this reason, the great challenge of Pope Benedict XVI can be better understood but never dismissed. In his now infamous Regensberg address, quoting a Christian emperor's dialogue with Islam half a millennium ago, Benedict noted that “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” In his own voice, Benedict continued: “For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” On this basis, the Pope issued his own counter-assertion:

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.

And so Benedict keeps asking his fundamental question: Can Islam find within itself a basis on which to use human reason for discussion and collaboration with other peoples in other cultures? If so, the Islamic conception of an utterly arbitrary God must inevitably slowly change, colored by aspects of Judeo-Christian Revelation which have heretofore gone undeveloped. Rosenzweig would ask the same question in terms of whether Islam is, or can become, more than merely a monotheistic paganism. Franz Rosenzweig’s remarkable analysis, now nearly 90 years old, sheds enormous light on one of the central issues of our times.

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